Learn How to Really Pray Effectively with These Tips
Prayer is the foundation and life source of a thriving Christian life. Without it, our faith withers and eventually vanishes, yet so many of us today struggle to understand prayer or carve out time to incorporate it into our daily, frenzied lives. Before we determine the method of prayer that suits our specific spirituality and vocation, it’s valuable to explain why prayer is so necessary for the health of our souls.
When we pray, we are encountering God in a heart-to-heart dialogue that involves both listening and an authentic outpouring of what’s in our minds and hearts. Essentially, prayer is an act of love. Much like any human relationship that grows stronger with regular communication, so does our relationship with God become a wellspring of love through prayer. The more we pray, the greater our love, which increases our desire to be with God more often.
There are several different forms of prayer, all of which are useful at various times in our lives or for specific reasons. They include adoration (or praise), contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication (which includes both petition and intercession). Adoration is our expression of praise that is rightfully due to God, in which we proclaim the wonders He has made (perhaps in creation). Praising God often stems from a deep reverence and fear of the Lord, because the more we recognize our finiteness, the greater we appreciate God’s greatness. Contrition includes expressing sorrow and remorse for our sins. Through prayers of contrition, we are acknowledging our need for God’s mercy. When we offer prayers of thanksgiving, we are recognizing everything God has given us. Gratitude fosters deeper love for God when we make this type of prayer more habitual. Finally, supplication includes prayers of petition, which is when we ask God for what we need, and intercession, or asking God to grant others what they need. (We are likely most familiar with this form of prayer, mainly because we begin our lives of prayer by bringing our requests to God.)
Based on our temperaments and spiritual preferences, we may gravitate toward different ways to pray. The forms of prayer often fluidly come to our hearts within these particular frameworks, which include silent prayer (including meditation and contemplation), structured prayer (such as rosaries, novenas, litanies, etc.), scripture study, and spiritual reading.
As we begin to refine our interior lives, we may begin with something like structured prayer or a Bible study because of their already-established methods. As prayer becomes more natural, however, silent prayer may replace or enhance our earlier preferences toward prayers that don't require adlibbing. Silent prayer (also called mental prayer) includes both meditation and contemplation, which can be differentiated easily. Meditation is when we enter into thoughts of God, perhaps pondering a spiritual truth or some insight we have gleaned from spiritual reading or reading scriptures. Contemplation, however, is an invitation from God that we receive as a prompting of the Holy Spirit; at times, contemplation can include the gift of tears, consolation, or feeling God’s touch on our hearts. Contemplation often leads to meditation, but the two remain distinct from each other.
We may have learned the basic forms and methods of prayer, but how does it all come together so that we can put it into practice? Here are some tips on establishing and maintaining a daily prayer life that will enrich your relationship with God and deepen your love for Him.
Establish a sacred space.
It’s critical to set aside a specific place that is conducive to prayer before you begin the process. Because our lives are otherwise consumed with various distractions and diversions, make sure to clear the clutter and simplify your surroundings to make them as distraction-free as possible. Some people opt to create a corner or an entire room that is devoted to prayer, including candles, statues, icons, and even kneelers. For those who are visual learners, having a space with beautiful religious objects will allow you to concentrate on more sublime thoughts. Other people prefer to pray in a Eucharistic Adoration chapel or perhaps arrive early to daily Mass for quiet time with the Lord. Try a few different options before determining which suits your lifestyle and vocation best.
Set aside time.
This may seem obvious, but prayer truly requires discipline, often because it is difficult for most of us to enter into a holy conversation with a Person we cannot touch or see face-to-face. There are millions of other tasks we could be doing, but despite your busyness, make a concerted effort to spend ten minutes with God each day. After you have established this rhythm, you can increase it to fifteen and so on until you are comfortably carving out enough time for God without it interfering with the daily duties of your vocation. Time also includes time of day. Some of us are fresh in the morning, others at night. If you are a morning person, set aside your time for prayer right away after getting up from the night’s rest. If you work outside the home, try praying on your lunch break. If evening is a time of unwinding and relaxation, turn off the TV a few minutes early and spend quiet time with the Lord.
Cultivate and enter into silence.
Silence fosters solitude, which naturally draws our souls heavenward. Silence your technology, and quiet your heart and mind. It’s vital to make sure you will not be interrupted during your time with the Lord, so turn off your phone and tell your family or coworkers that you do not want to be disturbed (unless it’s urgent). Silence is the space where God speaks to us, so we begin our conversation by listening to Him. Alphonsus Liguori, a great saint and mystic, calls this moment “retreating into the cell of your heart.”
Listen attentively to the Holy Spirit.
We must learn to recognize how the Holy Spirit speaks to us. Some describe it as God knocking or tugging at their hearts. Recall that God did not speak in the wind or earthquake, through mighty and fantastic works. Rather, His presence was in a “still, small voice” (see 1 Kings 19: 11 – 12). Before we begin with our requests, praise, gratitude, or lamentations, we would do well to discipline ourselves to hear God speak to us in the silence. We can hear God through His Word, so a good practice for listening is to read the daily Mass readings through a liturgical companion like Laudate, Magnificat, or even Liturgy of the Hours. Begin listening by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3: 10).
Speak to God.
Here is where you can incorporate various methods of praying (scripture or spiritual reading, structured prayers, and mental prayer) as you converse with God. You may continue your devotional readings but pause when something strikes you. As you pause, bring your thoughts and reactions to God as if you are chatting with a friend or trusted relative. Talk to Him freely and without restraint. Do not try to conform your responses to what you erroneously believe He wants to hear. If you are angry, tell Him. If you’re tired of your cross, don’t withhold that. The truth is, God already knows everything in our hearts, and if we truly want to love and encounter Him authentically, we must present ourselves as we are, no-holds-barred, in sincere and heartfelt conversation. Cry or laugh. Since you are alone with God, you don’t have to put on false pretenses. This is your intimate, personal exchange of the language of the heart with your Father in Heaven. End your prayer by asking, “What is Your invitation for me today?”
Respond to what you hear.
God doesn’t want us to exist in small spaces. We are not confined to our offices and homes merely because it’s comfortable and familiar. Prayer will always move us to holy action, because we are meant to share our spiritual charisms with the world in opportunities that God presents to us during our time spent with Him. Since this is the Year of Mercy, it may be desirable for us to begin with reviewing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, asking God how we can incorporate them more regularly into our lives. Liturgical seasons, like Advent and Lent, are also excellent periods of time for us to evaluate our prayer lives, deepen them, and increase our acts of charity for others. Ask God, “How do you want me to encounter others today?”
Keep a prayer journal.
Even for those who aren’t inclined toward writing, a journal is one way we can record the ways God speaks to us, our responses, and answered prayers. In times of spiritual aridity or doubt, we can access our journals and be reminded of His unfailing love and providence. Use the questions listed in each section above as journaling prompts. Be sure to pause long enough to hear a response in your heart before writing. You can also use this to make your own requests or even write a letter to God.
Because prayer is an act of love, it bears fruit. If we receive insight into a spiritual truth while we pray, God likely wants us to share that in some way, perhaps through a change in our attitudes or behaviors or maybe more directly by reaching out to someone who is lost or lonely. In this way, love multiplies. God, Who is Love, pours Himself into our hearts so that we are desperate to share Him with those in our communities. Be assured if you pray every day, not only will you become the person you were meant to be, but you will also change the world in unimaginable ways.